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Jeff Schwartz

April 22, 1995

"Sister Ray:" Some Pleasures of a Musical Text

In this paper, I am opposing the current overwhelming preeminence of lyric analysis in popular music studies. Instead, inspired by Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text, I offer a series of readings of "Sister Ray," showing how the theme of transgression of gender, self, and body structures every aspect of the text. I am not arguing for unity as an aesthetic standard, on which every musical text should be judged. After all, many of the most interesting popular songs, from "Teen Angel" to Sonic Youth, derive their power from conflicts among what is signified by the harmony, rhythm, lyrics, melody, recording technique, vocal stance, etc. Elvis Costello's first album My Aim is True is a great example of this; the complete banality of the music is a perfect foil for the viciousness of Elvis' lyrics and attitude. However, the thematic unity of "Sister Ray" makes it a good example to demonstrate my approach. A longer analysis of dialogic relationships between words and music will wait for another time.

"Sister Ray" is from the Velvet Underground's second album White Light/White Heat. Ellen Willis, who is (to my knowledge) the only other academic to write on the Velvet Underground, claims that the band's work is dominated by the themes of sin and salvation. However, she reaches this conclusion based on a reading of the band's first three records, mainly the third. This third record (self-titled) was a major change of direction. First, keyboardist-bassist-viola player John Cale, who was the only member of the group without a background in or commitment to popular music, being instead a formally trained avant-garde classical composer, was forced out of the group. Without Cale's experimental background and multi-instrumental skills, the Velvet Underground became a much more conventional-sounding band. There was also a more mundane and material cause for the band's sonic transformation on the third album: the group's collection of effects boxes was stolen immediately before the recording of the this record (Heylin 29).

"Sister Ray" is also a significant item in the Velvet Underground's oeuvre because it is the closest thing in their officially released work to the music they improvised live for Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable happenings and screenings of his films. Judging from descriptions of the Velvet Underground's early live shows, "Sister Ray" is the most accurate representation (short of bootlegs) of what the band sounded like in person for the first 2 or 3 years.


Here are Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison's accounts of the recording process:

Reed: "Sister Ray" was done as a joke-no, not as a joke, but it has eight characters in it and this guy gets killed and nobody does anything. It was built around this story that I wrote about this scene of total debauchery and decay. I like to think of Sister Ray as a transvestite smack dealer. The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear. When it came to putting the music to it, it had to be spontaneous. The jam came about right there in the studio. We didn't use splices or anything. I had been listening to a lot of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman and wanted to get something like that with a rock and roll feeling. When we did "Sister Ray," we turned up to ten flat out, leakage all over the place. That's it. They asked us what we were going to do. We said "We're going to start." They said "Who's playing bass?" We said "There is no bass." They asked us when it ends. We didn't know. When it ends, that's when it ends. (Bockris and Malagna 93-94, Doggett 55).

Sterling Morrison: We didn't want to lay down separate tracks, we wanted to do it studio live with a simultaneous voice, but the problem was that the current state of studio art wouldn't let us do it. There was fantastic leakage because everyone was playing so loud and we had so much electronic junk with us in the studio-all these fuzzers and compressors. Gary Kellgran the engineer, who is ultra-competent, told us repeatedly, "You can't do it-all the needles are on red." And we reacted as we always reacted: "Look, we don't know what goes on in there and we don't want to hear about it. Just do the best you can." And so the album is all fuzzy, there's all that white noise.

No producer could override our taste. We'd do a whole lot of takes, and then there would be a big brawl over which one to use. Of course, everyone would opt for the take where they sounded best. It was a tremendous hassle, so on "Sister Ray," which we knew was going to be a major effort, we stared at each other and said, "This is going to be one take. So whatever you want to do, you better do it now." And that explains what's going on in the mix. Everyone's trying to do what he wants to every second, and no one backs off. (Thompson 35)


According to the published sheet music for "Sister Ray" (Reed 1991b: 118-120), the entire song consists of three chords: G, F, and C. Curiously, this is also the chord progression to Madonna's song "Express Yourself." Melanie Morton, in the only musicological essay in Cathy Schwitenberg's The Madonna Collection, discusses this song, and finds in its harmonic and melodic organization elements that subvert the phallic narrative assumptions of standard Western harmony (226-229).

Here is a brief summary and paraphrase of Morton's analysis, expanded to include "Sister Ray": Although G is obviously the tonal center of these songs, the F chord cannot be explained in the key of G except as the subdominant of the subdominant (the IV chord of C, the IV of the tonic G), far too arcane a relation to make sense of such a crucial element of the song's structure. This chord progression contains nothing that can function as a dominant chord or indicates an appropriate major scale. Furthermore, Madonna's vocal melody includes notes that imply a variety of scales, but the connection of these melody notes with the underlying harmony never coalesces into the logic of Western tonality. Instead, that logic, whose phallic, teleological underpinnings have been exposed at great length by Susan McClary, is maintained at a distance, an object for Madonna's play, instead of her master.

Lou Reed is a much less tonal singer than Madonna, and I have not tried to transcribe his vocal melodies, but I think it's safe to say that his work equals hers in terms of funky harmonic and melodic play. I use the word "funky" here, not to be cute, but to open an area in which Morton may be criticized.

The G-F-C chord progression is difficult to explain only from the perspective of European tonal music. In rock (and other African-American inspired musics such as blues and country), it is a very common progression. Current rock musicologists (writing mainly in musician oriented magazines such as Guitar Player, Bass Player, Guitar World, etc.) are fond of modal analysis, and G-F-C is clearly a progression derived from the mixolydian mode. However, both Madonna and the Velvet Underground do not simply draw their melodic material from the G mixolydian scale, but combine it with the G blues pentatonic scale. The Velvet Underground go even further outside, with long segments of freely atonal soloing and straight-out noise.

Morton claims that Madonna's subversion of harmonic logic is a form of feminist deconstruction, but this is severely weakened if "Express Yourself" is considered in the context of specifically popular music practices. The Who's "Magic Bus" and Van Morrison's "Gloria" are just two of the many rock songs that use melodies of ambiguous scalar origin over the I-VII-IV progression. The sentiments of these songs can hardly be described as feminist (unless maybe if Patti Smith is singing them).

"Sister Ray," on the other hand, pushes the limits of tonality much farther. The chord progression I've been discussing, which is from the published sheet music, actually only appears for the first minute or two of the song, and then only in Lou Reed's guitar part. Even at the start, Morrison and Cale are playing figures that imply different, related harmonies [play tape example 1].

Looking at my transcription of the first four bars, the parts appear to mesh consistently. The only real sources of tension are from Sterling Morrison's guitar fills, where his use of the G blues pentatonic scale clashes with the chords Reed and Cale are playing (although even these dissonances are common rock sounds: adding the fourth, lowered seventh, or lowered third to a major chord) and from Cale's not playing the F chord with Reed, staying on the G instead. When Cale does this, the resulting formation cannot be accurately described using existing nomenclature; it is neither of the extended chords generated by the combination of the two, G9sus or F6/9#11, which imply jazz chords that belong in a Steely Dan or Stevie Wonder song, nor is it a sound-effect, like Stravinsky and Bartok's use of polytonality. The languages of Western tonality, Modernist experimentation, modality, and jazz are all inadequate for the analysis of rock.

Much like the theme of a jazz song, these opening figures are soon discarded anyway. I have transcribed some of the riffs used in the course of "Sister Ray." Considering these, their various combinations, and their relationship to the opening figure, perhaps the best way to describe the harmonic structure of "Sister Ray" is to steal a phrase from guitarist John Scofield and say it's in "G whatever." This is more than a joke. Lou Reed, like Scofield, has listened a lot to Ornette Coleman and often dropped his name during, and when discussing, the early Velvet Underground period (Bockris and Malagna 93; Doggett 18, 25; Heylin 22). The major revolutionary contribution Coleman made in the early `60s was to omit chord progressions and song form from most of his compositions, leaving only a tonal center, which can be moved by the musicians following the flow of the improvisation. This describes "Sister Ray," except that the tonal center stays fixed. Even when Reed, Morrison, and Cale are producing noise (feedback from the guitars, tone clusters on the organ), it is heard with the center of G, because it has been established as a drone, through extreme repetition. This is the influence of LaMonte Young. John Cale describes his pre-Velvet Underground project with Young as "The concept of the group was to sustain notes for two hours at a time." (Bockris and Malagna 13).

The use of the G drone creates a limit and, as Foucault says in his essay on Bataille, transgression requires a limit. Only because this G has been repeated and repeated can Lou Reed have the pleasure of syncopating an F chord over several barlines (8:49) or Sterling Morrison that of hammering away at an out-of-tune tritone (8:57)(this, of course, later becomes the favorite move of Sonic Youth). Besides straining at the limits of harmonic explanation, the musicians are also in constant friction with even the minimal boundary they have set for themselves. Likely, it only exists in order to produce this friction.

Despite my criticism of Morton previously, I do believe that McClary's ideas about the gendered nature of harmony as a system of musical narrativity can be productively applied to popular music, "Sister Ray" in particular.

The most controversial chapter of McClary's book Feminine Endings is her discussion of contemporary composer Janika Vandervelde (112-131). She identifies Vandervelde's use of a rhythmically insistent but harmonically ambiguous academic minimalism as a way of representing female embodiment and pleasure. In Vandervelde's Genesis II, the piece McClary analyzes, the piano, plays in this style, while the violin and cello forcefully enact the teleological gestures of Romanticism. McClary sees the conflict in this piece as a perfect example of the convergence of sexual politics and harmonic logic.

The music to "Sister Ray" reflects this same conflict between an interest in repetition and ambiguity, culturally coded as feminine, and one in violence and linear narrative, coded masculine. The important difference between Genesis II and "Sister Ray" is that, unlike the clear division of the ensemble in Vandervelde's composition, on the Velvet Underground record, the instruments are all frantically simultaneously signifying in both directions. The music mirrors the transvestites who populate its lyrics.


Lou Reed, in one of his accounts of the recording of "Sister Ray" included above, emphasizes that no one is playing bass (Bockris and Malagna 93). Not only does the absence of a bassist decenter the harmony, since outlining it is traditionally the bass's role, it also enables a greater mobility of instrumental roles. There is no bass-there is no base. The guitar and organ both are common lead and accompaniment instruments in rock and, as my transcriptions have shown, the types of figures used blur these roles.

Sterling Morrison takes the first guitar solo (0:47). His guitar can be distinguished from Reed's by its twangier, less distorted sound. This first solo is the only one that really functions as a feature for a single musician and it gives the impression that Reed and Cale are being generous to him, since as soon as it ends, they turn up and nearly drown him out for most of the rest of the song. This solo is strongly reminiscent of "Louie Louie" in timbre and tonality; Morrison stays in typical blues pentatonic rock territory [play tape example 2].

The many instrumental breaks that follow are quite different. Cale or Reed will start an improvisation, and the other will enter after a couple of bars. The instrumentals then alternate between simultaneous melodic playing by Cale and Reed or exchanges of percussive chords and noises [tape example 3]. This is another example of the influence of avant-garde jazz, particularly Ornette Coleman's album Free Jazz and John Coltrane's Ascension. Both of these are LP length improvisations. In the Coleman piece, each horn player is featured in a solo, during which the other horns are free to interject commentary and engage in dialogue with the soloist and each other [play excerpt from Free Jazz]. The Coltrane LP is similar, but each horn solos with only the rhythm section. After each of the individual performances, the entire ensemble reconvenes, as if collectively discussing what was just played. Cale and Reed's playing on "Sister Ray" differs from that on these albums however, because there is no overall plan and because they lack the harmonic ingenuity of the jazz players. Reed always begins his solos in the blues pentatonic, while Cale uses the mixolydian. Both quickly move outside of these bounds, but their improvisations are quite different from those on Ascension, which has a modal basis (though the players are not obliged to follow it strictly), and Free Jazz, which has no apparent harmonic outline for the improvisations.

Reed's vocal, rather than being the privileged, featured lead, functions simply as another instrument in the mix. When he is singing, the other players, especially Cale, get in his space just as violently as they do when he is playing a guitar lead. This is especially apparent at the start of the fourth section of the first iteration of the lyrics (6:35), where the instrumental jam continues, without changing intensity, despite Reed's vocal entrance [play tape example 4].

Up to this point, I have said nothing about Maureen "Moe" Tucker, the Velvet Underground's drummer. Moe is not a full participant in the collective improvisation for most of "Sister Ray." Instead, she keeps to a strict time keeping function.

However, Tucker's performance embodies what Richard Middleton, Dave Laing, and Jon Stratton have identified as the musical equivalent of Freud's death drive, a kind of musical entropy, in her dramatic moves from a four unit beat (one and two and three and four and) to a two unit beat (one and two and three and four and) to a one unit beat (one and two and three and four and), which they call the monad (Stratton 50; Middleton 235-7, 265; Laing 85-86). As the beat increases in intensity, it decreases in information content, until the one unit beat is indistinguishable from stasis, while it at the same time represents the most frenetic activity.

Furthermore, there is a crucial two and a half minute segment, long after the three boys have exhausted their repertoire of thrashing gestures, where Tucker triggers what is the true climax of "Sister Ray." Fourteen minutes, twelve seconds into the track, after Reed has finished his second iteration of the lyrics, Moe abandons the simple beats she has been playing and begins floating freely around her kit. Sterling Morrison, coming to the forefront for the first time since his solo in the first minute of the song, takes over the time keeping role with his guitar. Here, there is a profound experience of decenteredness since the listener has become so accustomed to Moe's steady beat. In this last extended improvisation, the last thing that has been assumed as a source of stability dissolves [play tape example 5].

Lyrics and Voice

In the lyrics of "Sister Ray," three means of transgressing the body's boundaries are featured: queer sex, I.V. drug use, and murder. Above all, it is a profound violation of the idea of masculinity for the male body to become penetrated, whether this penetration is by a cock, a needle, or a bullet (Simpson 69, 84, 132, 134-141, 160-161, for example). While it is clear that someone, usually referred to as "she" is performing felatio on another character or the narrator in the scene being described, in the third section of the first iteration of the lyrics, Reed sings "Oh no man, I haven't got the time-time/Too busy sucking on a ding-dong," suggesting that the narrator himself may also enjoy giving, as well as getting. This, of course, is purged from the published lyrics, though the reference to the narrator's being sucked remains (Reed 1991b: 121).

Martin Chalmers, in his essay "Heroin, the Needle, and the Politics of the Body," gives an excellent account of the bodily transgressions associated with I.V. drug use. Not only is the surface of the body literally violated, but the ideal of the body as "a healthy, working machine, ready for labour and the conspicuous consumption of consumer leisure-time" is also punctured by the illogically defiant use of the body for self-destructive pleasure (151, 153). Body play in all its forms, he writes, has been always associated with women and (male) homosexuals (152).

The song's complete lyrics are repeated two and a half times and, with each successive repetition, Reed's enunciation becomes more and more distorted. He stutters, repeats words, interjects other comments and vocal sounds, and melismatically stretches phrases [play tape example 6]. This play with language as sound is a violation of the communicative function of words, emphasizing instead the bodily pleasure of speech (Stratton 50-51). This is another production of pleasure at the mouth, a liminal area of the body.

The fact that the same story is told more than once in "Sister Ray," by the repetition of the lyrics, undermines the ability of the lyric narrative to structure the song, since the patterns of tension, development, climax, and resolution in the story do not have a determinative relation to the form of the music.

Also, as with the drive to the rhythmic monad in Maureen Tucker's drumming, repetition is the manifestation of the death drive in art.


The LP White Light/White Heat, which includes "Sister Ray," is often considered one of the worst recorded albums in music history. As Reed and Morrison's accounts of the recording sessions described, the fidelity of the tapes and the balance of the mix are quite poor, because of the band's abuse of the studio equipment. However, rather than flaws in the work, which should be ignored in order to hear the music, like the hiss on early blues recordings, for example, the "bad" sonics of White Light/White Heat, especially on "Sister Ray," are another example of the theme of transgression.

In multitrack recording, each instrumental and vocal part occupies a narrow segment of the surface of the magnetic tape. Think of these as separate, parallel lanes, or tracks. Since the information is physically divided, one track can be changed or replaced, without affecting the others. This is how Prince, for example, can play all the instruments on his records. When a signal that is too loud is recorded on one track, its representation requires more space than is available in that track, and it infringes on the neighboring ones, distorting them and making it impossible to balance the levels of the different tracks, since they are in each other's space. The language recording engineers use to describe this phenomenon shows its transgressive, bodily nature: if a track is too hot, it will bleed onto other tracks.

Leakage is another result of excessive recording volumes. When recording more than one instrument simultaneously to different tracks, engineers use a separate microphone for each. If the music is too loud however, it will leak into other microphones, again, preventing proper mixing, since there will be traces of the drums on the vocal track, the bass on the drum track, etc.

Also, the recording tape can physically only handle a certain overall signal level. Most better home tape decks have a recording level control to prevent the distortion that results from exceeding the capacity of the medium. Experiment with this at home, or at your rich friend's home; you can't break anything-I don't think.

All three of these audio "don'ts" are in evidence on "Sister Ray." The instrumental tracks are too hot, leaking and bleeding over one another's boundaries, until it becomes difficult to separate one from another. Furthermore, the whole recording, the body of the text, is too hot, captured in a permanent state of over-excitation.


We all know better than to place the text in an essential relation to its author, whether the source for this is the New Critical intentional fallacy, the poststructuralist death of the author, or Dave Laing's theorization of external and internal modes of address in popular song (87-91). All the same, Lou Reed's sexuality has been at the center of most attempts to make sense of his work and besides, inquiring minds want to know. I want to know.

Peter Doggett's Lou Reed: Growing up in Public is the only full length biography of Reed in English. Briefly, Doggett, following interviews Reed has given, tells how Reed's desire for men led his parents to have him given electro-shock treatments when he was seventeen (an event which forms the basis of the song "Kill your Sons" (18). Later, when he was in college at Syracuse, Reed dated both men and women, but formed no satisfying relationships, emotionally or sexually (23). No information is given on his sex life during the Velvet Underground period.

Reed has married twice, but both marriages took place at the periods in his career when he most involved in exploring gay life. His first marriage, to a woman named Betty, came in 1973, when he was spending a lot of time with David Bowie, working on the album Transformer (84) his most blatantly gay themed record. This marriage dissolved during the recording of the Berlin LP, a case of life imitating art, or vice versa (87). From 1976 to 1978, Reed lived with Rachel, a (male) transvestite (95-99). Doggett claims that this was the most serious relationship Reed had had to this point (114). At the fadeout of "Coney Island Baby," probably Reed's best love song, Reed says "I'd like to send this one out to Lou and Rachel and all the kids out at PS 192-man I swear I'd give the whole thing up for you." (101). In 1979, Reed gave a series of interviews in which he spoke explicitly about his homosexuality, and lived in an apartment on Christopher Street, in the center of New York's gay community. However, shortly after this, he met Sylvia Morales at a S/M club in Greenwich Village, and they married on Valentine's Day 1980 (115, 121-122).

Since Doggett's book was published, Reed has apparently left Sylvia and is now involved with Laurie Anderson (Lemon 104).

I have rehearsed all of this gossip not simply out of the voyeurism of a fan, but to get to a point where I can address two recent issues dealing with Reed's work.

First, John Gill, in his new book Queer Noises: Male and Female Homosexuality in Twentieth Century Music, in a chapter called "Dire Straights: Ziggy, Iggy, Marc, Lou," accuses Reed, along with David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, and Marc Bolan, of cynically exploiting gay identities for publicity (106-113). However, Gill mentions Reed only in his subtitle, and devotes the entire essay to Bowie. Furthermore, elsewhere in his book, Gill is eager to claim Miles Davis as a "queer saint" based on unsubstantiated rumors (65), yet it is clear from Davis' own autobiography that he was no saint, especially in his treatment of the women in his life, and it is odd that Gill is so willing to discard the "dire straights" and at the same time canonize Miles.

Second, and more important, starting in 1989 with the release of Reed's New York LP, there have been a series of moves to establish Reed as a Serious Rock Artist, to place him in a group with, for example, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. The book of poems and lyrics Between Thought and Expression, the boxed set of the same title, and the Words and Music sheet music anthology are all attempts to sum up Reed's work and argue for its importance. However, each of these, by omission and editing, is also an attempt to heterosexualize Reed and his work (Doggett 175). "Sister Ray" does not appear on the box set or in the poems and lyrics book, though it is included in the songbook. However, it too has been straightened out. Not only, as I previously mentioned, have the lyrics been changed to clarify who is sucking whom, but the decision to represent the ambiguous music of "Sister Ray" as nice tidy triads is also a way to restrict its signification, to force it into reasonable limits.

Works Cited

Bockris, Victor and Gerard Malanga. Up-tight: The Velvet Underground Story. New York: Quill, 1983

Chalmers, Martin. "Heroin, the Needle and the Politics of the Body." in McRobbie. 150-155.

Davis, Miles and Quincy Troupe. Miles: The Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Doggett, Peter. Lou Reed: Growing Up in Public. New York: Omnibus P, 1992.

Foucault, Michel. "A Preface to Transgression." in Language, Counter-Memory, and Practice. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1977. 29-52.

Gill, John. Queer Noises: Male and Female Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Music. Minneapolis: U of MN P, 1995.

Heylin, Clinton. From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History fro a Post-Punk World. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Laing, David. "The Grain of Punk: An Analysis of the Lyrics." in McRobbie. 74-101.

Lemon, Brendan. "Laurie Anderson." The New Yorker. April 10, 1995. 104-105.

McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minneapolis: U of MN P, 1991.

McRobbie, Angela, ed. Zoot Suits and Second-Hand Dresses: An Anthology of Fashion and Music. Boston: Unwin-Hyman, 1988.

Middleton, Richard. "`Play It Again Sam:' Some Notes on the Productivity of Repetition in Popular Music." Popular Music 3 (1983)

Morton, Melanie. "Dont' Go for Second Sex, Baby!" in Schwitenberg. 213-235.

Reed, Lou (1991a). Between Thought and Expression: Selected Lyrics of Lou Reed. New York: Hyperion, 1991.

--- (1991b). Words and Music. Seacacus, NJ: Warner Bros., 1991.

Schwitenberg, Cathy, ed. The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities, and Cultural Theory. Boulder: Westview, 1993.

Simpson, Mark. Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Stratton, Jon. "Beyond Art: Postmodernism and the Case of Popular Music." Theory, Culture, and Society 6 (1989)

Thompson, Dave. Beyond the Velvet Underground. New York: Omnibus, 1989.

Willis, Ellen. "Velvet Underground." in Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll. Havover, NH: Weslyan UP, 1992. 110-124.